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Review: We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

Title: We All Looked Up
Author: Tommy Wallach
Genre: Fiction
ISBN: 978-1-4814-1877-5
Published: Simon & Schuster, 2015
Purchase: Amazon, Simon & Schuster
Bonus: Full-length companion album


Main Characters: Peter, Eliza, Andy, Anita

Synopsis: One evening, a blue-tinted star appears in the sky. Not “appears” as in something only careful astronomers and amateur star-charters would notice, but “appears” as in everyone on the planet notices at pretty much the same time and won’t stop talking about it. It’s only a couple weeks before NASA tells the world that yes, it might hit us. In fact, there’s a 2/3 chance that it will. What would you do in the months leading up to impending doom? Wallach’s novel, told through multiple perspectives, takes us through the lives of four teens and their friends as they try and figure out what’s worth keeping around… either for the continuation of the world, or the end of it.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “… The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world. You’re part of this cosmic community of people who’ve thought about this thing, whatever it happens to be. I think that’s what happened to you today. This fear, of squandering your future, was already on your mind. I just underlined it for you.”
  • She believed photography to be the greatest of all art forms because it was simultaneously junk food and gourmet cuisine, because you could snap dozens of pictures in a couple hours, then spend dozens of hours perfecting just a couple of them. She loved how what began as an act of the imagination turned into a systematic series of operations, organized and ordered and clear, mixing up the processing bath, developing the negatives, choosing the best shots and expanding them, watching as the images appeared on the blank white paper as if in some kind of backward laundromat– a billowing line of clean sheets slowly developing stains, then hung up until those stains were fixed forever. And then there was the setting, crepuscular and shadowy, everything about it perfectly calibrated for creativity, from the sultry red glow of the darkroom lights to the still and shallow pool in which her prints rested like dead leaves on the surface of a pond…
  • … “Anita, do you every worry that you’re wasting your life?”
    … “I think everybody does,” Anita said. “But we’re only eighteen. You can’t have wasted your life at eighteen. We haven’t even lived our lives yet.”
    “But you have to decide, you know? It’s like that poem with the road in the woods. You don’t want to end up running down the wrong road, because you’ll probably never get back to that place again. The place where the road splits, I mean.”
    “Actually, the point of that poem is that it doesn’t really matter which road you pick.”
  • After it was over, Peter sat on the couch and let his mom hold him. His dad kept changing the channels on the TV, hoping to find someone able to contradict some parts of the president’s speech. Both of them were crying, his mom steady as a stream, his dad like an imperfectly sealed pipe– just a slow drip around the edges. Peter loved his parents, but right then he would’ve given anything to get away from them. Their anxiety burned away all the oxygen in the room; his own feelings couldn’t breathe. He was only eighteen! There were so many things he hadn’t experienced yet– world travel, bungee jumping, sushi. And what the hell had he been waiting for? Why had he assumed time was some sort of infinite resource? Now the hourglass had busted open, and what he’d always assumed was just a bunch of sand turned out to be a million tiny diamonds.

Review: This book was an easy sell. I was intrigued by the cover, first of all, and then I flipped it open to read the blurb. I didn’t even read the first part, but my eyes were immediately drawn to: “They said the asteroid would be here in two months.” That was all I needed. Bam. Sold.

I’m going to throw it back a bit here, but do any of you remember Animorphs? You know, that series about the kids that were able to turn into animals to save the world from the invading aliens? Anyway, that’s one of my favorite series of all time, and its author, K.A. Applegate, has continued to write books that blow my mind. Shortly after Animorphs ended, she released a series called Remnants. It didn’t quite have the longevity of Animorphs, but the first book in the series began with a similar premise to We All Looked Up: the end of the world. An asteroid impact. The rest of Remnants involves the 100 or so people chosen to escape the planet on a dilapidated space shuttle and their adventures once cryostatis wakes them up 500 years later, which is pretty divergent from WALU, but anyway. The point is that Remnants #1 is absolutely one of my all-time favorite books (within the top 10) and it’s a brilliant reflection on human nature.

Which is to say, that human nature is unpredictable. There is no “default” setting for human nature. What you assume humans are going to do… well, they won’t. Some will. Others will exist completely outside the realm of plausibility.

WALU follows the story of four interconnected teens and their lives leading up to the Big Impact. The book begins with Peter, already having an existential crisis before the asteroid even appears in the night sky; obviously, learning that there’s a 66% chance that humanity will be wiped out just like the dinosaurs doesn’t do much to help him.

Anita is perfect. She gets perfect grades, has a perfect family, always looks perfect. But she’s tired of being perfect. She gets a C on a test for the first time ever, just to see how her parents will react. Spoiler: it’s not good.

Eliza’s home life sucks, so she’s taken to meeting boys at clubs and sleeping with them, just so she can feel something. To try and make someone care. But ultimately, no one seems to.

Andy is torn between loyalty to the guy who has always been his best friend, and the knowledge that his best friend is … well, not a good person. Andy wants to help Bobo, but might soon realize that Bobo is either beyond help or just not worth saving…

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the descriptions of what other people were doing. The randoms. The people you’ve never met and undoubtedly never will. Strangers in cities, strangers on islands, strangers in penthouses, and strangers on the street. Some, like Peter’s parents in the quote above, can’t find it in themselves to do anything but cry. They fall into the pit of depression, of hopelessness, of “what’s the point,” and there’s no one who can help them climb back out. Others decide it’s finally their chance to do whatever the hell they want; what’s a two-week jail stay in the long run? It’s all going to burn anyway. Others, though, others spread love: tell their loved ones they love them, make an effort to DO those last things on their bucket lists, find the money or the excuses to visit those beautiful places they’ve only dreamed about.

Not that any of those is a right or wrong response, really, which is sort of the point. You can’t predict how you’ll react. Honestly. You can ponder it day and night for the next 50 years but until it actually happens to you, you just don’t know.

Spoiler: the book ends before the meteor hits. Or doesn’t hit. I was slightly disappointed at first, because come on that’s the best part– but then I realized that the moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is the person you are leading up to that moment. You can die in jail, or you can spend the next seventy years in jail. Or you can fill your life with light and love and go out surrounded by the people you care about the most… or if the world doesn’t end, wake up to a new world surrounded by the people you love.

Which one sounds better to you?

Rating: ★★★★½

P.S. The author is also a great musician, and he wrote an album to go along with the book. Check it out on bandcamp! You can download it for $5, or if you really love it, get yourself the vinyl for $20. Why not? After all, life is short.



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Review: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Title: These Broken Stars
Author: Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner
Genre: YA Fiction
ISBN: 1-42-317102-0
Published: December 2013, Disney Hyperion


Main Characters: Lilac, Tarver

Synopsis: Tarver Menderson is a soldier. He accomplished something recently that propelled him into “hero” status, but even with that he doesn’t come close to the magnificent star system that is Lilac LaRoux. Lilac LaRoux is… rich. Beyond measure. A princess, by any futuristic standards. Why, her father built the spaceship that she and Tarver are both sailing on. (Spaceship? More like, colossal luxury cruise ship IN SPACE.) Except… Tarver doesn’t know who she is. He’s heard of her, of course, but he doesn’t recognize her on sight. So when he chats up the beautiful redhead in the ballroom, he has no idea that he’s speaking to the daughter of the most powerful– and dangerous– man in the universe. Well, that’s awkward. But there are worse things than incurring Mr. LaRoux’s wrath. Worse things like the ship bucking out of space and time itself. In a cruel twist of fate, Tarver and Lilac help each other escape the tormented ship. Their escape pod careens into the forest on a nearby planet, and they watch together as the behemoth of a space cruiser, dying and aflame, slams into the surface of the planet.

Memorable Quotes:

  • The Icarus is falling. She’s like a great beast up in the sky, and I imagine her groaning as she wallows and turns, some part of her still fighting, engines still firing in an attempt to escape gravity. For a few moments she seems to hang there, eclipsing one of the planet’s moons, pale in the afternoon sky. But what comes next is inevitable, and I find myself reaching out to put an arm around the girl beside me as the ship dies, pieces still peeling away as she makes her final descent.
  • My lady? Does he know how crazy his faux courtesy makes me? Surely no one could be so aggravating by accident or coincidence. I cling to that anger, trying not to let it fade as I look at him. It’s safe, this fury. I can’t afford to feel anything else.
  • How quickly one’s delusions come crashing down– the soldiers aren’t watching us society folk, wishing they could touch us. They’re laughing at us in our bright dresses and parasols, our immaculately re-created drawing rooms and parlors. And what was funny in the sparkling world of the Icarus is simply pathetically ridiculous down here, in the kind of world they live in day to day.
  • The idea that someone will swoop down and take him away from me, off to fight some distant war in some distant system, makes me feel like my lungs are filling with water. I don’t know how to reach him, how to make him see how I feel. I don’t know what’s going on behind the brown eyes I’ve come to know so well. I don’t know what he’s thinking as he looks at me.

Review: This is one of those books that you start off knowing how it’ll end, but that doesn’t make the journey any less fun.

This was just such a fun story! The opening scenes on the ship do a great job for establishing the characters. You learn quickly about their personalities, even if you don’t know their background stories yet. The action of the ship going down is brilliantly paced.

The book starts off with what can only be interpreted as someone being interrogated. You’re able to figure out a couple chapters later that it’s Tarver. But who is interrogating him, and why? The actual story, then, is a flashback as told by Tarver. (Except somehow the chapters alternate POVs. Hmm.) This also sort of answers a question you didn’t even know you had: when they crash-land, when all this bad stuff is happening to them, do they manage to make it off the planet alive? Well, clearly, yes. Because Tarver is giving a debriefing about it.

Their trek across the planet to reach the fallen Icarus comes off as a bit slow sometimes. (Are they there yet?) But the authors do a really good job of filling the silence. That’s when all of the character backstory comes out. The characters don’t tell all of it to each other, but we as the omnipotent reader get to see what’s going on.

You learn a lot about the planet through their separate reactions to it. Obviously, this book is set in the future. This society has the ability to terraform (and then colonize) planets. This planet that they’ve landed on is definitely terraformed: Tarver has been on many terraformed planets, and he recognizes the specific elements, like the type of trees used, the way the air is breathable. But the trees are taller than he’s ever seen… and, even stranger, there are no colonists. How long has this planet been terraformed? Why are there no colonists? What the hell happened here?

The love story takes a back burner to the larger mystery, which is quickly noted as being a mystery but slow to be fleshed out. Why is Lilac hearing voices? Is she simply crazy (or in shock), or is there something else going on here? Seriously, why are there  no colonists? Are they ever going to confess their feelings for each other??

This review came out a bit more sarcastic than I intended, but I truly did enjoy the book. I read it in less than a day, it was that enthralling. It’s an adventurous, futuristic love-story mystery novel. What’s not to like?!


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Review: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Title: Everything Leads to You
Author: Nina LaCour
Genre: YA Fiction
ISBN: 0-52-542588-8
Published: May 2014, Dutton Juvenile


Main Characters: Emi, Charlotte, Ava

Synopsis: Emi, a Los Angeles native, has just graduated high school. Thanks to her older brother, Toby, she’s got an awesome job: she’s interning at a movie studio. She’s in charge of designing a set! Just for one scene, which is a tall order for an intern, but Emi is very, very good. The job isn’t without its perils, though; she’s working with her love interest, Morgan, who has just dumped Emi… for the sixth time. In her attempts to avoid Morgan, Emi avoids the studio. She’s looking for furniture for her set design anyway. However, she finds something at an estate sale that will completely change her life– and a few others’ along with it.

Memorable Quotes:

  • Later, though, once she’s lying under the boy’s weight, and there are close-ups of their hands or feet or faces, people will see the thread and the leaves. I can picture the girl’s hair spilling over the side, blending with the gold, like she’s tangled up in a forest. There’s something fairy-tale-like about it, which is perfect, because fairytales are all about innocence and ill will and the inevitability of terrible things. They’re all about the moment when the girl is no longer who she once was…
  • “… I’m sure that Tracey loved me and couldn’t imagine losing me, too. But that doesn’t mean she really wanted to be a parent. Or that she was ready to be one.”
  • This conversation isn’t that different from the five others we had before getting back together. But it feels different, because wanting someone is not the same as loving her, and now I understand that Morgan does not love me. When you love someone, you are sure. You don’t need time to decide. You don’t say stop and start over and over, like you’re playing some kind of sport. You know the immensity of what you have and you protect it.
  • … I am thinking about the set I would create if this were a movie about me. If I were trying to show people how it once felt to be with Morgan I would show the shimmering blue water of the pool at her apartment, and the line she rigged on her back deck because her unit has a washing machine but no room for a dryer. All those tank tops and pairs of bright underwear in the sun. It would be a soft nostalgia, a faded romance.

Review: I love falling in love with characters. I love falling in love with the way a book makes me feel. I loved falling in love with this book, maybe more so than I even like falling in actual love.

Spoilers abound.

This is a beautiful, beautiful story. At its heart it’s a love story, of course. But Nina LaCour crafts the book so beautifully, I can’t help but compare her to Emi and her careful eye as she constructs a set. Every little detail matters, whether it’s the way a picture frame tilts just off kilter, or the way the light hits Ava’s hair. Obviously Emi and Nina are of the same brain… but it’s different, somehow, this time. I could get lost in the way things are described. I picked out a few of my favorites and posted them above. The way she describes the couch, for instance. I mean, it’s a couch! But the couch is Emi’s job: she finds the beauty in the details, she knows how important the subtleties are, and all of that comes across in the writing. You and I, we look at a couch and think, wow, that looks comfy. (Or… maybe not, depending on the couch!) But Emi looks at a couch and sees how it needs to connect with the story. The golden thread, the character’s golden hair. A fairytale forest, full of ominous danger, because that is where the character is headed in the story.

I loved the emotion weaved into the story, too. There’s a particularly poignant moment in the story after Ava confronts her adoptive mother, Tracey.

Without warning, Ava pulls onto the side of the road. She pulls up the emergency brake and leans into Jamal, buries her face in his shoulder, her body quaking. She trembles and trembles and when she finally cries it doesn’t even sound like crying. Nothing like that night in our living room with Clyde Jones on the screen looking out at her. Not like a few minutes ago, on Tracey’s front lawn. Not even close to that. It’s this gasping that makes Charlotte and me lock hands, makes me have to struggle against crying myself. It isn’t my tragedy. It isn’t me who knows for certain in this moment that I’m alone in the world. She has us, I know, but for all people talk about friends as being the same as family, I know that, really, they aren’t. At least not when you’re eighteen. Not when sometimes you need your mother.

I can completely identify with that feeling. Last year, I moved to a completely new place by myself. I didn’t know a soul, and my workplace was not conducive to making friendships. I didn’t know anything about the city I was in, and going out was always a pain in the ass because of traffic, so I pretty much always stayed home. It got to a point where my anxieties had completely overwhelmed me and I was becoming a bit of a hypochondriac and I was crying multiple times a day and… I just really needed a hug from my mother. But she wasn’t there. She was three thousand miles away. I know it’s completely, 100% not the same thing as being abandoned on purpose, but that sense of alone-ness, of not having anyone there to comfort you in your darkest moments when you absolutely need them… that, I get.

I feel like there’s a bit of “manic pixie dream girl” dismantling going on here, too. When Emi first meets Ava, she thinks she’s perfect. The girl is a mystery. Ava doesn’t even know anything about her own life! Emi’s dramatic flair takes over, and she wants to solve this mystery. She wants to help Ava in her rags-to-riches fairytale. She wants to be the one who made her. Emi wants to direct the movie of Ava’s life, frame the situation. That the tragedy is in the past and now Ava can be free and live her life in the spotlight. Except… that’s not how real people work. I found this passage particularly beautiful.

I want to confess. I thought that her story was composed of scenes. I thought the tragedy could be glamorous and her grief could be undone by a sunnier future. I thought we could pinpoint dramatic events on a time line and call it a life.

But I was wrong. There are no scenes in life, there are only minutes. And none are skipped over and they all lead to the next. There was the minute that Caroline set Ava down and the minutes it took her to shoot up. There was the minute that Caroline died and all of the minutes before Lenny discovered them. The minute he left Ava there, still crying, and the minutes before the ambulance came. And all of the minutes that followed that, wherever she went next, whoever held her, so many gaps in memory that must have been filled by something important. I want to apologize for not realizing sooner that what I felt in Clyde’s study was not the beginning of a mystery or a project. She was never something waiting to be solved. All she is– all she’s ever been– is a person trying to live a life.

I also want to add that it’s really refreshing to read a book with queer characters that… isn’t about being queer. Emi is gay, obviously, but it’s not her defining trait at all, just like a regular human being. It’s just one facet of her being. So many “queer novels” are about the gay struggle: coming out, getting kicked out of the house, telling your friends, what have you. And those are… important, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of the genre. The world needs to recognize that queer people can lead just as normal lives as anyone else, and that’s who Emi is. She’s a normal teenage girl with an awesome job, a family, a best friend, and a car. Her love is the same as anyone else’s: timid, nervous, afraid of messing up, but passionate. It’s what we all strive for in a relationship, no matter what gender the person we search for it in.

In short, I’ll leave you with this. If you want a completely beautifully written story, with colorful, relatable characters, and fantastically interwoven plotlines to boot, please pick this book up. Do yourself the favor. It’s $11 for your Kindle and you don’t even need a Kindle to read Kindle books! Just get the free app on your smartphone. Seriously. I promise you won’t regret it.

Rating: ★★★★★


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